Civic Communications Q&A: Meet Jody Roberts, Communications Manager for the City of Hudson, Ohio

This is the first in a series of interviews with civic leaders and staff who manage communications for their community. Learn from peers and gather insight on how others, who face similar challenges, are managing their communications.

My husband and I chose to move to Hudson, Ohio about nine years ago. One of the reasons we chose to move here was the overwhelming sense of community pride. I think much of this pride comes from being well informed by city officials. I’ve always felt that our City has communicated well with its residents through email, social media, and the local television channel.

With the situation we find ourselves in today, during the coronavirus outbreak, communication from the local government is even more important. I started noticing that city email communications were daily rather than weekly. Despite the fact that I’m being inundated with information from all directions, I always pay attention to emails from the city because they’re informative, easy to digest, and a summation of what’s particularly relevant to my neighbors and me.

Since Hudson’s email communications have been so helpful to me, I went to city’s communications manager, Jody Roberts, to learn more about her approach.

What has been your communication philosophy during the COVID-19 outbreak? How is this different from business as usual?

Hudson always has an emergency operations plan in place that’s triggered when we’re dealing with a significant local, regional, or national crisis. As part of the plan, a communications team was formed to focus on both internal and external communications. The team includes our communications staff, as well as members of critical departments, such as Fire, EMS, and Police to ensure information is flowing from the departments to the communications team and ultimately to the public.

Our process for this particular crisis is no different than others we’ve dealt with – like the 2003 flood – but the closure of our offices has made this more challenging. Thank goodness for technology! We’re depending on it, like many, for working remotely and sharing timely information on social media. Our goal is to get accurate information out as quickly as possible.

What has been the biggest challenge or issue with communicating during this crisis?

Three issues come to mind:

  1. Making sure all information comes in to a central source and is vetted before distributing. This is challenging when things are moving so fast in various departments, but we’ve done a good job centralizing the communications.
  2. Social media is a great tool to get information in good time, but it’s also a platform where people (who mean well) post and share misinformation which spreads quickly. Once misinformation is posted, it’s hard for people believe that what they saw before isn’t true. It’s an era when people are more likely to believe what a friend or neighbor posts over more reliable sources of information.
  3. It’s not just misinformation that is difficult to manage; it’s also posts from folks who share information they’ve heard that can’t be confirmed not denied. It may be true, but if we have not received official confirmation of the facts, we’re not going to declare it as true or false. It’s an ongoing challenge for government communications because we’re not going to speculative information – it needs to be vetted. For example, in the case of mass shootings, victims’ identification is often revealed first by friends and relatives on social media (or through the media). But city government cannot name the victims until there’s absolute confirmation of their identities and after the family has been notified.
What are your most effective communications tools right now?

Social media and our email.

How have residents and businesses been responding?

They have responded well to what we’ve been doing so far. Most are appreciative of the quality and quantity of information we are putting out.

What role does technology play? Do you anticipate a more permanent shift in the way you run your organization and engage the community?

Technology has been critical in this crisis. We’ve had to quickly find new ways to do things, such as hold virtual council meetings and work on technology that would allow real-time citizen comments during these meetings. We also are holding daily meetings with key emergency operations staff by video, and groups that have been assigned tasks are using online project management tools and sharing. We’ve used these types of tools before, but now our entire operation is relying on technology to get through this.

What are you most concerned about once we get past this crisis?

There are many concerns locally, regionally, and nationally, but right now we are focused on encouraging people to honor the Stay-At-Home order from the governor to help slow the spread and flatten the curve.

Tell us about how you are managing communications in your city or community.
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Erica Deutsch
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